Main Engine Cut Off

T+67: Special Preview of MECO Headlines, December 1–8, 2017

A special preview of the MECO Headlines shows: Elon Musk kinda-sorta-maybe announces the Falcon Heavy demo payload, Russia and China carry out successful military launches, NASA announces some very interesting NextSTEP-2 contracts, OA-8E Cygnus departs ISS, and SpaceX’s SLC-40 is back, baby!

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 23 executive producers—Kris, Mike, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Brian, Russell, and five anonymous—and 107 other supporters on Patreon.

Relativity Space’s Terran 1

Jeff Foust of SpaceNews had a great article about Relativity Space in the November issue of SpaceNews Magazine, and it’s now online. It contains some great photos of Relativity’s hardware, including one shot of their engine, which I had never seen.

Most interesting to me is the payload capacity they’re targeting with Terran 1, their first vehicle:

While the company has been developing technologies to 3D print launch vehicles, it has also been working on an engine for it. The Aeon 1 engine, powered by methane and liquid oxygen and producing more than 15,000 pounds-force of thrust, has undergone tests at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The Space Act Agreement between NASA and Relativity for those tests was one of the few hints of the company’s activities while the company was in stealth.

“It simplifies a lot of the vehicle architecture,” Ellis said of the choice of propellants. That combination allows for what’s known as “autogenous” pressurization, where the propellants in effect self-pressurize, eliminating the need for helium bottles and plumbing to pressurize the tanks.

The company plans to initially put those technologies together into a rocket called Terran 1. The two-stage rocket will have nine Aeon 1 engines in its first stage and one in its second. It will be capable of placing up to 1,250 kilograms into low Earth orbit.

In recent weeks, I’ve been talking about the fact that the new batch of small launch vehicles—Electron, LauncerOne, and the like—are all a bit too small for some payloads—especially Department of Defense payloads.

If Virgin Orbit delivers on their stated cost and performance goals for LauncherOne, they’ll put Minotaur I out of work in a hurry. But the market is still without any vehicles that put the heavier Minotaurs—Minotaur IV and Minotaur-C specifically—in any danger.

Terran 1 could be the first truly commercial launch vehicle to take on those heavier Minotaurs.

Not to mention Relativity’s focus on a quick timeline from production to launch, which would also be quite interesting to the Department of Defense, I’m sure.

Thanks to November Patrons

Very special thanks to the 126 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of November. Your support keeps this blog and podcast going, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 23 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Mike, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Robert, Brian, Russell, and five anonymous executive producers. I could not do this without your support, and I am extremely grateful for it.

There are some great perks for those supporting on Patreon, too. At $3 a month, you get access to the MECO Headlines podcast feed—every Friday, I run through the headlines of the week and discuss the stories that didn’t make it into the main show. And at $5 a month, you’ll get advance notice of guest appearances with the ability to contribute questions and topics to the show, and you get access to the MECO Discord—a place to hang out and discuss all things space.

If you want to get in on some of these perks, of if you’re getting some value out of what I do here and just want to send a little value back to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and do it there.

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair Rocket Socks, tell a friend, or post a link to something I’m writing or talking about on Twitter or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself.

Someone Fregat to Consider the Launch Azimuth

Anatoly Zak has been following the recent Soyuz failure closely, and recently posted some information that—if true—is finally starting to demystify what happened:

In the Soyuz/Fregat launch vehicle, the first three booster stages of the rocket and the Fregat upper stage have their two separate guidance systems controlled by their own gyroscopic platforms. The guidance reference axis used by the gyroscopes on the Soyuz and on the Fregat had a 10-degree difference. The geographical azimuth of previous Soyuz/Fregat launcher from Baikonur, Plesetsk and Kourou normally laid within a range from positive 140 to negative 140 degrees. To bring the gyroscopic guidance system into operational readiness, its main platform has to be rotated into a zero-degree position via a shortest possible route. The azimuth of the ill-fated Vostochny launch was 174 degrees, and with an additional 10 degrees for the Fregat's reference axis, it meant that its gyro platform had to turn 184 degrees in order to reach the required "zero" position.

In the Soyuz rocket, the gyro platform normally rotated from 174 degrees back to a zero position, providing the correct guidance. However on the Fregat, the shortest path for its platform to a zero-degree position was to increase its angle from 184 to 360 degrees. Essentially, the platform came to the same position, but this is not how the software in the main flight control computer on the Fregat interpreted the situation. Instead, the computer decided that the spacecraft had been 360 degrees off target and dutifully commanded its thrusters to fire to turn it around to the required zero-degree position. After a roughly 60-degree turn, the gyroscope system on the Fregat stalled, essentially leaving the vehicle without any ability to orient itself in space…

This is such an obvious-in-hindsight error that it’s painful. The fact that this mismatch of guidance reference axes and launch azimuths slipped through the cracks points to a few things: poorly-defined flight rules, the lack of any sort of whole-of-mission oversight, and quite possibly the inability for in-the-trenches engineers to speak up and be heard.

T+66: A Visit to NanoRacks, and Virgin Orbit Books a Department of Defense Launch

I was in Houston last week and I visited NanoRacks for a bit. And Virgin Orbit piqued the interest of the Department of Defense, which has some interesting implications.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 22 executive producers—Kris, Mike, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Robert, Brian, and five anonymous—and 104 other supporters on Patreon.

New Glomar

Chris Gebhardt of NASASpaceflight published a nice article last week on Blue Origin’s ongoing New Glenn work. He also had this great little nugget of info to share regarding the ship that New Glenn will land upon:

With specific note to the ship, Mr. Henderson revealed that Blue Origin has purchased – or is very close to finalizing the purchase of – a large ship that will be used for New Glenn booster landings.

The ship in question is expected to arrive in Port Canaveral before the end of the year.

T+65: The New GEO Model, Orbital ATK’s Composite Case, Good and Bad SpaceX News

SES gives us a preview of their new GEO strategy (which may be a harbinger of the future), Orbital ATK tests a new composite case to be used for their Next-Generation Launcher and future SLS boosters, NASA approves the use of previously-flown Falcon 9 first stages, and SpaceX sets off some LOX fireworks down in McGregor, Texas.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 23 executive producers—Kris, Mike, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Guinevere, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Robert, Brian, and five anonymous—and 96 other supporters on Patreon.

Tory Bruno on Vulcan and Internal Investment

Jeff Foust of SpaceNews on a talk given by Tory Bruno yesterday:

Bruno also said he was not concerned about getting approvals from ULA’s two owners, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to continue development of Vulcan. “We generate our own operating cash and expenses and investment from our ongoing business,” he said. “Our parents — our owners — generously allow us to invest in this new platform rather than simply turn that money back into cash in their pockets.”

Bruno declined to specify how much internal investment was going into Vulcan, but noted the company has consistently been profitable. “I might hazard to argue that ULA is one of the very few space launch companies that has consistently earned a reasonable profit,” he said.

I’d love to see the numbers involved here, but the fact that Bruno is putting this out there at all says a lot.

Orbital ATK’s Next-Generation Composite Case Passes Structural Acceptance Test

The company is in early production of development hardware for its Next Generation Launch (NGL) system, and on October 27 successfully completed the structural acceptance test on the first motor high-strength composite case for this program.

The applied structural loads during the test demonstrated over 110 percent of maximum expected motor operating pressure and 110 percent of operational/flight and pre-launch compressive/tensile line loads. This full-scale motor case segment will be cast with inert solid rocket propellant in early 2018 and shipped to the launch site for check-out of ground operations.

The conceit of this press release is that the case is specifically for the Next Generation Launch system, but it’s also for SLS. SLS will debut with Shuttle-derived 5-segment boosters, but as plans currently stand, will move to upgraded boosters after a few flights.

And right now, the odds-on favorite for that booster is Orbital ATK’s Castor 1200.

The commonality between future SLS boosters and an EELV-class launch vehicle built by a company who the US Department of Defense would very much like to keep around and making solid rockets is exactly why I wouldn’t be surprised to see NGL chosen in the upcoming Launch Services Agreements awards.

Update: some great photos posted on Twitter by Orbital ATK.